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How to Overcome a Fear of Hunger

Amy wants to know how to overcome her fear of hunger.

Question: I noticed how afraid I am of hunger. This is a big issue for me that is becoming more obvious as I try to apply the principles I am learning in this Mindful Eating workshop. I feel almost a sense of panic when I start to feel hungry. I had a bad experience one afternoon at the vet’s office. I didn’t feel it coming but all the sudden I recognized that my blood sugar had dropped. I didn’t have any food with me and I got really stressed. When I finally got home, I ate too much, too fast. I really don’t like that feeling. There’s got to be a better way to respond!

Answer: Thank you, Amy. You didn’t say you have diabetes, so I am going to assume that you don’t and that you aren’t taking any glucose-lowering diabetes medications. (For hunger and diabetes, please read Mindful Eating and Hunger When You’re On Medications for Diabetes. Link: https://amihungry.com/mindful-eating-and-hunger-when-youre-on-medications-for-diabetes/)

There are a lot of reasons you may have learned to be afraid of hunger.

Uncomfortable or scary experiences, like your situation at the vet’s office.
Perhaps there was a time in your life when you weren’t fed consistently or felt uncertain about getting enough food. For example, if your caregivers had difficulty providing meals consistently, maybe due to money, schedules, or other challenges, then food insecurity can lead to a persistent fear of hunger.
Some people don’t feed themselves consistently as adults because they lack awareness of hunger or don’t take time to eat, so they often find that they are overly hungry.
If you weren’t “allowed” to eat on past diets, you may perceive your natural feelings of hunger as unpleasant and try to avoid them.
In addition, many diets promote eating on a schedule. Their explanation is that it will keep your metabolism up or prevent hunger so you won’t overeat. These messages feed a fear of hunger.
The good news is that, unless you are medications for diabetes that can cause hypoglycemia, serious low blood sugar reactions are rare. Although it may feel scary at first, remember that hunger is your natural guide for meeting your fuel needs! Think of it like a fuel gauge in your car that lets you know when it is time to refuel.

Mindfulness is really helpful for becoming more aware of the earlier signs of hunger. As your stomach begins to feel empty, you may become more aware of its muscular contractions. As your blood sugar starts to dip, you may notice low energy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. If you don’t eat, you may become aware of a feeling of weakness, shakiness, and even develop a headache.

I know those symptoms of hunger don’t feel great, but they aren’t there to hurt you—they are there to get your attention so you will feed yourself! With practice, you will become more attuned to your hunger cues and learn that you can trust your internal fuel gauge.

One of the problems with being afraid of hunger is that it can lead to preventive eating or eating on a schedule. Instead of eating automatically every three hours, perhaps you set an alarm in a few hours to check in and notice any symptoms of hunger. (Our Mindful Eating Virtual Coach app has a timer that you can set that will remind you to check in and provides the instructions for a Body-Mind-Heart Scan.)

Of course, being overly hungry is a potential trigger for overeating, so it makes sense to be prepared for hunger by keeping food on hand. Convenient foods (nuts, string cheese, fruit) that can be eaten discretely on a short break, between appointments, or after a meeting, helps eliminate the need to eat preventatively.

When you notice that you are overly hungry, remind yourself that your stomach capacity didn’t increase, so you don’t need more food than usual—you just need to eat soon. Be intentional about choosing food and slowing down to eat.

To overcome the fear of hunger, assure yourself that you’ll usually be able to eat when you’re hungry. This may mean reminding yourself that food scarcity is no longer an issue and that you are an adult now who trusts your body’s signals of hunger.

And don’t be afraid of “ruining your metabolism” if you occasionally can’t eat right away. Although I wouldn’t recommend intentionally ignoring hunger frequently, if you can’t eat the moment hunger strikes, your body has fuel reserves that it will draw on until you can eat.

So Amy, the answer to your statement, “There has to be a better way,” is yes, there is!

Oh, and one more benefit of learning to overcome your fear of hunger is that food tastes even better when you’re hungry. As my grandmother used to say, hunger is the best seasoning!

Michelle May M.D.

Michelle May is a physician and recovered yoyo dieter. She founded Am I Hungry?® to provide an alternative to restrictive and ineffective dieting.

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